Sifting through history’s ashes

Times Staff Writer

When Ken Burns was working on his first professional documentary, in 1979, he pestered playwright Arthur Miller for an interview on its subject, the Brooklyn Bridge. Miller had written “A View From the Bridge,” so Burns figured he would have wisdom to share about the stately span. But when the fledgling filmmaker traveled to Miller’s farm in Connecticut, “I arrived with heart pounding, he’s 6-foot-5 and leans in, ‘I don’t know a god-damned thing about the Brooklyn Bridge!’ ” Burns recalls. “I just must have looked so mortified.”

The playwright did not give him a chance to reload his camera. Burns got to ask a single question and to this day can quote, to the word, how Miller replied: “You see, the city is fundamentally a practical utilitarian invention and . . . suddenly you see this steel poetry sticking there . . . . It makes you feel that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful.”

Just like that, the unknown Ken Burns had: (1) the ending of his film, (2) a story to tell in graduation speeches he would be asked to give when he too became famous, and (3) a mantra for his life: “Maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful.”


Burns, whose latest documentary series, “The War,” begins Sept. 23 on PBS, has always been drawn to statements that sum things up in the broadest way. Posted on the wall of his office here, behind his own farmhouse, is a pearl from Tyrone Guthrie, the Minneapolis theater impresario: “We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again.” Burns is forever quoting historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. also, about how our fractured society suffers from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.” So it is in “The War” that the opening minutes have former Marine pilot Sam Hynes saying, “I don’t think there is such a thing as a good war. There are sometimes necessary wars,” thus providing a theme that runs through Burns’ seven-parter, all 14 1/2 hours of it.

Burns has a sum-it-up for himself as well. He says right out that he’s about “Waking the dead” and that this stems from his mother’s death when he was 11. He volunteers in interviews and speeches that there wasn’t a day of his childhood when he wasn’t aware of her cancer and that it influenced “all that I would become.”

He did not see this link until well after he had earned renown for “The Civil War,” which captured the nation’s imagination in 1990 and gave people a new way of looking at still photographs, which freeze a moment in time but which he animated by zooming in, or scanning over them, the technique now called the “Ken Burns Effect.” He says he was telling a friend how for years whenever he got a birthday cake, “I’d blow out the candles and wish that she’d be alive. He said, ‘What do you think you do for a living? . . . You make Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong come alive. Who do you think you’re really trying to wake?’ ”

That’s not the entire story -- there’s the matter of his mom’s ashes -- but it’s a step toward what Arthur Miller urged in “Death of a Salesman,” speaking of a single dead nobody, that “Attention must be paid,” and now Burns takes his turn at doing that with the war that killed 60 million.

Pictures tell a story

“Here lie three Americans...,” says the Shakespearean voice of the narrator as the screen shows one of the photos of World War II, a Life magazine shot of uniformed bodies on a New Guinea beach. Published in 1943, it marked the first time Americans back home had been allowed to see their dead, though nearly two years had passed since Pearl Harbor.

Burns and a half-dozen others are in a sound studio in Times Square making final tweaks to Episode 3, “A Deadly Calling.” The Life photo is used in its introductory moments, following a shot of a bucolic homeland cemetery and newsreel-style footage of an island battle.

Burns, in jeans and a T-shirt, sits with a legal pad on his lap, taking notes next to his co-producer and co-director, Lynn Novick. Second by second, they are scrutinizing the soundtrack to decide when our contemplation of the cemetery should be interrupted by the sounds of lapping waves and rat-a-tat machine gun fire. “We anticipated out of the cemetery a little too much,” Burns says, “and it’s not about the waves, it’s about the guns,” so the sound man tones down the surf. But the decibel level rises through the battle footage, culminating in an explosion. Then silence -- it’s time for Life’s depiction of death.

The beach photo was unsettling enough in a magazine. Here Burns makes you go from one body to another as limbs sink into the wet sand. Are those maggots on that back? The only sound now is the narrator reading Life’s explanation that it was time to show “the reality that lies behind the names . . . on monuments in the leafy squares of busy American towns.” Then music -- the soft piano of Dave Brubeck, playing “Where or When,” and a baby back home plays with a framed photo of his uniformed daddy.

Burns sometimes gets dinged for being too heartland; a critic for this paper chided his “pure Hallmark” moments. But the whole point here is the contrast, the Hallmark against the horrors.

Whatever success he had with another war, tackling WWII was risky, given the others who have doneit, twice in the case of Steven Spielberg (“Schlindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”) and Clint Eastwood (his “Iwo Jima” films). While those were fictionalized, Burns is the first to downplay the difference. The week of his sound sessions, he participated in a tribute to photographer Jerome Liebling, a guru at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. As comic relief, they showed a short made in the early ‘70s by Burns and others in which they strode down a Berkshires road and let the camera take in what it stumbled on, so an encounter with a chicken is embraced as profound reality.

Burns’ work now could not be more different -- “manipulated truth,” he calls it, and it’s as orchestrated as any feature film. The still photos and war footage come without sound, meaning the cacophony of combat is all imposed, as are the hiss of a welding torch at the Mobile, Ala., shipyard and the nickering that punctuates the story of a Waterbury, Conn., man who got to horseback ride while others were dying overseas.

Or there’s Anne Devico recalling New Year’s Eve 1943, when she and her girlfriends joined the throngs in New York, where she spied this “good-looking dreamboat” in uniform who later that night “kissed me and said, ‘I’m going to marry you.’ ” When the screen shows black-and-white footage of girls checking out a serviceman, viewers may believe they’re witnessing that encounter, when it’s other girls found by Burns’ crew among the reams shot in Times Square that night. “Oh, thank you, God!” he says of that discovery.

He’s not producing a textbook but “an epic poem,” and he’s tried to distinguish his from the other WWII films by focusing on the interplay of home front and war front, using Sacramento, Luverne, Minn., Mobile and Waterbury.

As always, Burns has fallen in love with some of his talking heads. In “The War,” he has done away with the professorial types who have provided insight, but also distance, in his other films. Here only those who lived the events get airtime, such as Katharine Phillips of Mobile, who volunteered at the Red Cross canteen after her brother joined the Marines. Speaking with a drawl that makes “war” come out “waaugh,” she recalls how the boy next door rode with Patton across Europe and how everyone was consumed with zeal to “kill the Japs” -- that said with a nervous laugh.

Burns refuses to embarrass his talking heads. Despising snarkiness, he edits out anything that would make them look foolish, though he does let a vet describe taking potshots -- and seeming to enjoy it -- at Japanese soldiers who jumped off cliffs on Saipan, opting for suicide over capture.

As for letters, Burns will never top the one he still keeps a copy of in his wallet -- Sullivan Ballou’s to his wife before the Civil War battle of Bull Run, “Sarah, my love for you is deathless. . . .” “The War” features very different letters written from Italy by Waterbury’s Babe Ciarlo, who was under fire in the Anzio campaign but kept telling his family everything was swell, “we’re having beautiful weather . . . this afternoon I might be swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

“Nothing ever happens here . . . . I guess it’s like Waterbury . . . dead,” the 20-year-old writes, and the viewer inevitably wonders: Is he too?

An object of much parodying

BURNS’ tone is so mild-mannered that people may not suspect he has a temper, but he does, and it came out once when an interviewer described him as “enthusiastic.” Burns sensed the word was being wielded as a pejorative, so he looked up its etymology and found it meant “God in us.” “I just sort of went, ' . . . you!’ You know, ‘This is who I am.’ ” He’s been parodied often, including on “The Simpsons,” when Homer is watching TV and there he is, introducing a “movie by Ken Burns about Ken Burns” and Homer panics because he can’t find his remote.

During the sound session, Burns’ crew began gossiping about “The Old Negro Space Program,” a TV writer’s brief film mocking his eggheadish talking heads, that Civil War letter (a black astronaut writes home that space is “one cold mutha”) and Burns’ preoccupation with racial discrimination, spoofing that by inventing “Blackstronauts.” Burns does view race as the ugly through line in our history, and “The War” is replete with reminders of injustice: white Memphis shipyard welders reacting violently to blacks too being allowed to “join iron,” or Japanese American volunteers placed in a segregated unit, and given deadly duty, even as their families are in internment camps.

A boyhood episode helps explain why he won’t ease up. While Burns’ father, Robert, taught anthropology at the University of Delaware, the family had a black housekeeper, Mrs. Jennings, “who had evolved into more than that because of my mother’s near perpetual sickness. And I remember going to her crying and things like that,” Burns recalls. Then his dad got a job at the University of Michigan, and “as we left . . . the last stop we made was at Mrs. Jennings’ house. And my father got out and embraced her and she came around and my father said, ‘Give Mrs. Jennings a kiss,’ and I wouldn’t . . . . And I still to this day feel this shame, shame, shame that I didn’t embrace Mrs. Jennings.”

Now when African American women come up after screenings to hug him, he doesn’t dream of resisting.

All that made him totally unprepared when he was accused of discrimination -- for leaving one group out of his WWII saga. “Where are the Latino stories?” asked Gus Chavez, who launched a “Defend the Honor Campaign” to force Burns to amend the series.

Burns at first said “No” -- his film was in the can and, “Don’t you know what I’ve done all my life?” But when the hardball politics didn’t abate, he realized it was “a debate I was never going to win” and added two Latino veterans, and a Native American, at the end of three segments.

He doesn’t know if that will mollify the critics, but he’s put a positive spin on the brouhaha, on how they hadn’t pressured Latino filmmakers to tell this story. “No, no, no -- it has to be Ken Burns,” he says. “In a way all of this was an extraordinary compliment.”

Besotted with John Ford

Burns is in Walpole, N.H., sharing pizza with new interns at his editing house, a 19th century doctor’s home off the town green.

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in making films,” he tells them, recalling how his late father would take him to see avant-garde foreign ones and Buster Keaton comedies. Those he wanted to emulate, however, were by directors such as John Ford who “liked to paint in broad strokes the story of America.”

He tells them he came up with his trademark technique at the end of his own student days at Hampshire, when he worked on a promotional film for Old Sturbridge Village, “and the last scene . . . was a painting which I panned across . . . [and] showed a transition from an agrarian to an industrial situation.”

He moved to New York afterward and “assumed I’d live there all my life,” until the landlord raised his rent to $325 while the raw film for his Brooklyn Bridge project sat atop his refrigerator. He thought of a fellow he knew who “was always talking about a novel he was going to write, and this panic overtook me. . . . I suddenly realized I hadn’t touched that footage, so I moved to Walpole, . . . where I could live for absolutely nothing, . . . ‘going to the mattresses,’ as Mario Puzo would say.”

He and two college buddies had formed Florentine Films as a collective, then added three more partners, including Amy Stechler, who became Burns’ first wife and with whom he had two daughters. But “after 1,000 rejections,” his bridge film was sold to PBS and “it threw a monkey wrench into the socialist model we had. Not all of us were willing to go back to being worker bees. I mean me.”

To him, there’s no line between the personal and professional. With him at the lunch is Dayton Duncan, his writer on many projects, though not “The War,” whose script and companion book were the work of Geoffrey C. Ward, a 17-year collaborator. Duncan goes back further -- three decades -- to when Burns arrived in New Hampshire and he was chief of staff to its governor. Duncan was also a justice of the peace and expedited a marriage license for Burns’ first wedding, and in 2003 presided over his second, to Julie Brown, founder of Room to Grow, a nonprofit that helps infants born into poverty.

And Duncan did the honors at another wedding. Burns tells the kids how he gave the commencement address in 1997 at the University of Michigan and so impressed one student, “when he graduated the next spring he . . . went to Keene, N.H., got a job waiting tables . . . found a cheap apartment, came up here, knocked on the back door.” That’s how David McMahon became an intern like them, then part of the staff, and met Burns’ 16-year-old daughter, his own Sarah. “After seven years of courtship,” McMahon formally asked Pop’s permission and the ceremony was in June of last year.

Duncan announces another milestone: “ ‘The War’ is finally getting out of this house. We’re going to be moving things. Bring your strong backs.”

Then it will be full speed ahead on the next Burns opus, on the national parks.

When people ask why he doesn’t do something different, Burns has two answers: (1) He does -- can’t they see that some of his films have loads of first-person voices, others none? Or that “The War” has almost no live cinematography -- it’s virtually all vintage -- while his next will be replete with it, beautiful fresh footage of the national parks? And (2) Sure, he’s been tempted to do Hollywood films. When he was working on “Baseball,” he flirted with doing a Jackie Robinson movie. But he studied the script “and everything that was good about it was in our . . . documentary. . . and everything that was bad was what they were making up.”

After the lunch, Burns gets in his Saab and drives up the hill, past the marsh he used in “The Civil War,” with a quote from Lincoln about the real threat to America being internal. “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author.”

Waiting at home are wife Julie and their toddler, Olivia, who is trying out her Halloween costume. “Elmo!” she says.

Between the wars

“The WAR” will air exactly 17 years after “The Civil War,” and Burns knows there are no guarantees it too will prove to be, to borrow Arthur Miller’s phrase, “something that would last.” There were 40 channels then, 400 now. And there’s really nothing new you can tell people about WWII, other than to shape its story your own way, how you “listen to the ghosts.”

So he has been around the country for promotional screenings, appearing before West Point cadets one week, a San Francisco audience the next. He did Cannes too, walked the red carpet. His corporate partners -- General Motors, Bank of America and Anheuser-Busch -- will promote “The War” on beer cans, ATM machines and at NASCAR races. Eager to see PBS attract more than “the choir,” Burns seems only to be half-joking when he notes that while you never can be sure what will draw, “You know that violence does. And . . . I got a film with the highest body count ever.”

He says too, “It’s also, like war, about that ultimate event, one’s death, which we avoid mightily in our normal lives. . . and love to see in our movies to be distracted by, as if by witnessing a great deal of death, we are somehow cheating it.”

“The War” ends with a reminder that 1,000 WWII veterans are dying every day, then plays its haunting theme song, “American Anthem,” sung by Norah Jones. “America, America, I gave my best to you,” she sings to snapshots of the characters back home, and as husbands and wives, a white couple, black couple and Japanese Americans, all young again.

The world is reminded anew how Ken Burns loves such snapshots of time -- and there’s a favorite in his house too.

On a wall by the kitchen, it shows him younger than Olivia. He spent his first year in the French Alps, where his father was studying a village. The elder Burns had been in France as a soldier, arriving shortly after the liberation. When he returned, his wife and baby boy served as ice breakers with residents of the village he planned to write about for National Geographic. It took him five years, but the piece finally ran, and so did the photo, showing Lyla Burns feeding little Kenny.

“I was too young to remember, but that becomes this iconic thing,” Burns says of the photo, whose meaning is not complicated. “Somebody who loves me. Somebody I haven’t seen in 40 years.”

She died while they were in Ann Arbor. The first thing Burns wrote that was published was an essay for a Scholastic Magazine competition called “Our First Christmas,” describing how he and his brother Ric tried to find a holiday tree there, with her so sick, their father depressed.

Ken Burns may have lapsed into a “benevolent amnesia” after her death in 1965, but his dad had a harder time with it -- he could not bring himself to go to the funeral home to pick up the ashes. By the time his two sons tried to make up for his oversight, the situation was a mess.

That was 1993, and by then the Burns boys were celebrity filmmakers, men of wealth and clout. The problem was, there was no funeral home at which to wield it. It had been out of business two decades. At least the widow of the owner had not thrown away unclaimed ashes. Out of liability concerns, she had shipped the “cremains” to a cemetery outside Ann Arbor, where those of their mom were buried with those of 45 others in an unmarked paupers grave. That mass burial was in 1972, and as far as the brothers could tell no one had come to the site since. So they reached an arrangement.

“We would be permitted to have a plaque over these 46 human beings,” recalls Ken Burns, “one of whom was my mother, Lila Smith Tucker Burns.”

He’s been back often, sometimes with his daughters, and in 2001, when Robert Burns died, they spread some of his ashes there too.

Oh, yes, the last image of “The War”: It’s an incredibly young serviceman, smiling broadly, really beaming. The camera pans up the photo of him in dress uniform until it reaches his hat, tilted to the side. He’s never identified, he’s just another GI Joe. But not to Burns. That’s Dad.